He was gracious and measured, stern but sober—and tough on Russia—as he addressed the greatest challenges facing the United States.
Standing in a hotel ballroom a few blocks from the spot where Donald Trump was threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea, Jeb Bush offered a glimpse of the presidency that could have been.
“At some point the president is going to have to go from this ad hoc diplomacy, or whatever the foreign policy is, to something that’s clear and coherent,” Bush, one of Trump’s vanquished 2016 opponents, told a hawkish hotel ballroom audience gathered Tuesday for the United Against Nuclear Iran conference. “Because at the end of the day, too much chaos, and being unreliable, creates real dangers.”
Bush, the former Florida governor, was once considered the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination. Instead, he was forced out well before the primary season was over, his efforts at a “joyful” campaign rooted in a muscular view of American leadership trampled by the nationalist Trump and his rowdy, populist-leaning campaign.
The sharp contrasts in tone and ideology that played out during that race—which have divided the Republican Party ever since—unfolded again Tuesday morning, within the span of two hours and less than a mile apart here in Manhattan.
As Trump mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “Rocket Man” who is “on a suicide mission for himself,” Bush opted for the traditional if overused term “rogue nation,” noting that Pyongyang needs “to be called out.”
As Trump glossed over threats from Russia to focus on other adversaries, Bush referred to Moscow as a “curse for President Trump”--remarks that come as Trump's White House grapples with probes into Russian influence in the 2016 election and possible ties to his campaign.
And as Trump leaned into his longtime campaign message of “America First,” Bush warned of dangers when the U.S. leaves “a void,” embracing the more internationalist view the Republican Party has recently represented, until now.
“Our vacillation, our pulling back…there was a big void and Russia took full advantage of it,” he said, when asked by MSNBC host and former George W. Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace whether America is doing enough to make Russia play a more constructive role in Iran.
Pointing to Syria and “a lack of a policy” there as well, Bush continued: “This is where ‘America First’ doesn’t look so good. Where if it’s America First, meaning, it’s only our economic interests, it’s got to be good for us in the medium term, in the short term, for our involvement—we see the price that we end up paying.”
A bespectacled Bush, sitting in a dark suit onstage with Wallace and former Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, was relaxed and genial during much of his appearance, laughing at a reference to ousted—and foul-mouthed—White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, and tossing in a joke about Mexico paying for Trump’s long-promised border wall.
He showed up to assess the Trump administration's foreign policy so far after a campaign in which tensions between the two men became intensely personal. Trump derided Bush during the campaign as “low-energy” and suggested his brother, President George W. Bush, shouldered some blame for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But in his appearance Tuesday morning, Bush also repeatedly went out of his way to find reasons to praise the president’s team.
“I think once in a while, the chaotic nature of the president’s words are helpful, it sets the table in the proper way,” Bush said, saying that the “generals” surrounding Trump, as well as administration officials such U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, give him some comfort.
“Generally, in the post-World War II era, there’s been a broader [foreign policy] consensus,” he said. “I think President Trump, with his foreign policy team intact, is moving in that direction. I may be wrong, his impulses contradict that from time to time, but I can tell all the people analyzing the tweets…I would follow more what we’re doing rather than what he says.”
On the campaign trail, Bush once plaintively encouraged an audience to “please clap.”
And in response to that assessment of the current president, there came a smattering of applause.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.